Monday, November 26, 2007

reading the manual

I've been practicing tai chi.

I think my brain finally realized we were out of sewing obligations and it could focus on what we wanted to do. And as I said to the SP the other day, I think I'm at a place of better understanding than I ever have been before--I can remind myself to drop the elbows, to round the back, to relax the hip and commit the weight-shift, and actually manage to do those things for a second or two at a time. It's just that the muscles are not trained and they are still fighting the brain.

Sit sat me down a few weeks ago and gave me a mild lecture about this. "You got the knowledge now," was the gist of what he said. "Key now is to repeat, repeat, so sometimes you get it right by accident. Then you remember what it feels like to do it right, and you do that again and again until it's easier to do the right thing than the wrong thing."

"I think the difference is you're starting to believe it now," the SP told me. And he may be right.

It's an axiom of martial arts that the older the student, the more time he spends unlearning bad habits. This is especially true if the student is self-taught or had a bad teacher before. You don't want to admit that you were doing something wrong before, so you fight the new knowledge that may be incompatible.

I taught myself to sew, mostly, so I spent a lot of time reinventing the wheel, and being an impatient child I had no interest in pressing or finishing my seams or any of the neatening and shaping skills that make a garment look professional instead of homemade. But the first time I made a corset, I knew it was not the time to cut corners. The parts were expensive and the fit was crucial to the entire outfit, not to mention my own comfort. It intimidated me so much I actually followed the instructions, which not only turned out a fabulous corset but taught me the value of planning ahead and doing things the right way, instead of the "quick" way. You might say I owe the bulk of my sewing competency to that corset pattern (Laughing Moon Mercantile 'Dore' corset pattern, best on the market).

I went through an even more profound struggle with my writing, because the writing was more connected to my ego, and I'd had too many bad teachers trying to convince me of the "right" way to do things. By the time I was twenty-eight I knew I was a good writer, but I knew also I wasn't good enough and it was terribly frustrating. I couldn't find that extra "something" that would make the story satifying; I didn't even know what it was, and there was no one I could ask. With no better options, I joined and spent a year reading a lot of really bad fiction. Gradually and unconsciously, I realized that a story arc has to bend back on itself to be satisfying, and there was nothing "trite" or "slick" about that, regardless of what my college prof insisted: there was a structure to it, as deliberate as that in a corset.

I found myself writing Quinn Taylor stories in a feverish fugue--story ideas I'd had in mind for years, but never knew what to do with them, how to make them relevant. At some point during that year of critting mediocre fiction, I'd begun to assimilate what Algis Budrys meant by "point," and why Mark Walters kept going on about "transcending the literal," but the only way my unconscious could get the knowledge past my ego was via a new story, since writing for me has always felt a lot like lucid dreaming. Writing "Galatea" was beyond lucid, it was like an out-of-body experience: looking down on my car, and the road, and the countryside I was travelling, able to trace the route at the same time I could feel the gearshift in my hand, my fingers wrapped around the wheel, my foot on the gas. So this is how it works, I thought with awe, whenever I paused to crack my knuckles and stare at the words. And this is how the next scene will work. And I'd go on.

I think the tai chi ability, when it comes together, is going to feel a lot like that. On occasional nights when I'm in the zone, I feel my fingers and body moving, I feel the carpet in the arches of my feet and the air molecules brushing my arms, but it's like I'm watching myself from outside my body. Only for a second or two at a time; but I've read accounts from the masters, and Sit too has said that a fighter must detatch himself in that way. Last Saturday I was working with the new Soccer Mom in class, and she's spastic and bouncy and laughing nervously, but I just strode up and took a stance and waved her to begin the pattern. "You're so serious!" she said after a while. "It's like you're so focused." I was in the zone, so the compliment had no effect on me emotionally, I just nodded and went on the sequence. But now I remember how detached and intimidating Zack always seemed to me. I never saw him outside of class, but inside, he was all business.

It has helped to have some padawans around, so I can watch their mistakes. It has helped also to attend tournament and watch the videos so I can see more advanced people and see what works. It has helped, God help me, to actually practice and pay attention to what my body is telling me and what Sit is showing me. One small concept at a time, applied.

On a whim the other night I went back and re-read Sit's bio and history pages. For years, Chinese names have been so much static in my head, because they all sound alike to my untrained English-speaking ear. But I guess I've been listing to the old man long enough that the sheer repetition has permeated. I've found I can read Pinyin phonetics and hear their pronunciation in my head. I can even pronounce them aloud, enough that Sit can understand what I'm getting at and correct me--a dialogue that goes something like this:

Me: How do you say this? "Coy?"
Sit: Cui.
Me: Cuoy?
Sit: Cui.
Me: Cuoyee?
Sit: No.

And so on. But at least I'm recognizing more of it, so I can follow along and get meaning from it. The osmosis is finally penetrating.

Last night I was doing some high-level qi gong, one which involves swinging the arms forward at an arc. You're supposed to do a hundred repetitions of it. At about fifty reps, it starts to hurt. At about seventy, I had to start slacking the muscles in my upper arms to continue, because the biceps were exhausted. At about ninety, I realized I could swing from the hip (uh...yeah, like you've been told 10,000 times or so!) and spare the shoulder and arms altogether--I had only to stretch the fingertips to keep the arc going. The last five or so were transcendent-- I am still, this morning, trying to remember what it felt like--like a dream you know was a wake-up call from your subconscious.

The salient point here, however, is not that I remembered to swing from the hip--it's that I did the move the prescribed 100 times and got so tired that I was forced to do it correctly.

Crazy what happens when you follow the instructions.

No comments: